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U.S. rattled as Mexico drug war bleeds over border

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Hit men dressed in fake police tactical gear burst into a home in Phoenix, rake it with gunfire and execute a man.

Armed kidnappers snatch victims from cars and even a local shopping mall across the Phoenix valley for ransom, turning the sun-baked city into the “kidnap capital” of the United States.

Violence of this kind is common in Mexico where drug cartel abductions and executions are a daily feature of a raging drug war that claimed 6,000 lives south of the border last year.

But U.S. authorities now fear that violent crime is beginning to bleed over the porous Mexico border and take hold here.

“The fight in Mexico is about domination of the smuggling corridors and those corridors don’t stop at the border,” Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said.

Execution style murders, violent home invasions, and a spiraling kidnap rate in Phoenix -- where police reported an average of one abduction a day last year linked to Mexican crime -- are not the only examples along the border.

In southern California, police have investigated cases of Americans abducted by armed groups tied to the Tijuana drug trade. One involved a businesswoman and her teenage daughter snatched in San Diego last year and held to ransom south of the border.

In south Texas, a live hand grenade traced back to a Mexican cartel stash was tossed onto the pool table of a bar frequented by off-duty police officers in January. The pin was left in it and the assailant fled.

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Mexican traffickers have always been violent, but the death toll has soared since President Felipe Calderon took office in late 2006 and sent tens of thousands of troops to fight the country’s powerful cocaine cartels.

Soldiers have fought pitched battles with drug gangs in several Mexican towns and overwhelmed police officers have fled municipal forces the length of the border. In many cases, police officers have been paid off by the drug gangs or even joined them.

In a sign of an increasingly desperate struggle to rein in the violence, Calderon this week ordered 5,000 more troops and federal police to Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

The cartels have killed 250 people in Ciudad Juarez in the past month, forced the police chief to resign, and shut down the airport with bomb threats.

The struggle by outgunned Mexican authorities to contain the violence was highlighted for Arizona state police last November, when Mexican police officers pinned down in a raging gun battle in Nogales, Sonora, reached out to them with an urgent request for more bullets.

While U.S. authorities stress they have not seen anything like the kind of street battles and horrific beheadings that are now common in Mexico, they are already taking action to curb was has become known as “overspill”.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry says he wants 1,000 troops to guard the border. The state’s Attorney General Greg Abbott is backing legislation to crack down on money laundering and human, drug and weapons trafficking through the state by the warring Gulf and Sinaloa cartels.

Lawmakers in Arizona heard testimony on border violence last week from police and prosecutors, who are seeking more robust measures to seize smugglers’ assets, as well as cracking down harder on gunrunning to Mexico.


Washington has stepped up support for Calderon, pledging to give Mexico helicopters, surveillance aircraft, inspection equipment and police training under a $1.4 billion plan to beat the cartels in Mexico and Central America.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -- a former Arizona governor -- told a Congressional hearing last week she was focused on curbing the southbound traffic in guns that are being used to arm the violent cartels.

In a measure of that commitment, a Phoenix gun dealer goes on trial next week on charges he sold hundreds of weapons, including AK-47 assault rifles, to smugglers knowing they would send them to a powerful cartel in Sinaloa state on Mexico’s Pacific coast.

As the spiraling drug violence shakes Mexican cities and towns along the U.S. border, U.S. Senate lawmakers announced last week they would hold two hearings to assess the ability of U.S. security forces to deal with the rise in crime on the U.S. side.

Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairman of the homeland security governmental affairs committee, said the panel would assess border security programs already in place and review whether federal, state and local authorities are ready to respond to any serious spillover of the Mexican drugs war.

For the sheriff of Hidalgo County, in south Texas, where the live grenade was thrown into a bar in Pharr, possibly by street gang members armed by a Mexican cartel, that renewed attention to the war on his doorstep can only be welcome.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a hand grenade attack,” Guadalupe Trevino told Reuters. “I believe there’s more out there that we need to find.”

Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard in Dallas and Randall Mikkelsen in Washington; Editing by Kieran Murray